In the great forest, the Arktoi stand at the portal, waiting for the veil between the worlds to open. It’s been a very long time since they have seen mortal girls. Although they themselves were once mortal, they have long since joined the ranks of the naiads, Artemis’ handmaidens who live in the woods and serve her as friends and helpers.
Sylvia: I see them!!
Iris: Oh they are CUTE! ...but what are they wearing?!
Nyx: Focus, Iris! This is going to take everything we’ve got. Are you ready? Let’s call them in.
Kory felt her body slam to the ground. She was disoriented. It felt like she had just stepped through water and fallen off a cliff. All around, her friends were similarly sprawled as though they had been knocked over by a giant. Gingerly, Kory pushed herself up to her hands and knees. “Is everyone ok?” she asked.
“Ughhhhh” moaned Sage. “Yeah, we’re ok.”
“Yeah, But where ARE WE?” Stella chimed in, heaving herself to her feet and looking around.
One by one the girls stood, brushing dirt and leaves off of their jeans. They huddled together, taking in their surroundings. They were in the woods. The trees were tall with wide trunks. They were in a small clearing. There was no sign of the white dome, or Tara.
There was also no sign of the three girls who had stood on the other side of the glowing doorway. They had looked so real, so solid. Kory remembered that one had been tall and golden-haired and muscular, with a look of delight and mischief on her face. The middle girl had very long dark hair, olive skin and a wide, friendly, mouth. The last girl had an intensity about her that had caught Kory’s attention. She had curly black hair, brown skin and golden eyes. She looked like a hunter who had spotted her prey. If Kory had to guess, the three of them were about 13 years old. They all carried weapons, and wore short, white, tunic dresses. Kory recognized them instantly as the girls from her dream. She had taken a step toward them. Just one step. And then, here she was...but the dream girls were gone.
They stood in silence, taking in the scene. The forest seemed quiet. They could hear birds, but that was it. If someone was going to attack them, Kory guessed they would have done it by now. Finally, Mixch broke the ice, “Guess we’re not in Kansas anymore, or whatever that line is from Wizard of Oz.” They all laughed, nervously. “But what are we going to do?” she continued. “Like...where’s the good witch and the yellow brick road?”
For the next half an hour, they argued. Mixch and Kory were fans of staying exactly where they were so they wouldn’t get lost. Sage, Melika and Stella pointed out that were already lost, and epically lost, since they weren’t even sure if they were still on the same planet, or in the same time in history. At least if they went into the woods they could look for help. Or shelter. This logic eventually overcame Kory’s resistance, even though the thought of going into the woods terrified her. Sage took pity and grabbed her hand. “Come on,” she said, “we’ll stick together. It’ll be alright.”
From the cover of the trees, Iris, Sylvia and Nyx watched with fascination. These girls were different than girls of their time had been. They wore pants and shoes and bright colors. A few had metal on their teeth. Iris desperately wanted to go and help them. “Imagine how we would feel if we got sent into their world with no warning!” she hissed, quietly.
“I know, Iris. I feel bad for them too,” Nyx agreed “but this is the first test. If they don’t pass it, they’ll wake up tomorrow back in their beds and just think it’s another dream. But if they pass...just imagine. This could save us all!”
“COME ON GIRLS!” Sylvia encouraged, under her breath. She was endlessly optimistic, unless she was in one of her doom and gloom modes. But most of the time, she could be counted on for keeping them all hopeful.
“COME ON GIRLS!” Nyx and Iris added, in voices barely above a whisper.
They had been walking for what felt like hours. They were tired. They were scared. They were hungry. They had long ago split up the last of the snacks in Sage’s backpack. “At least I thought to bring it! Where are the rest of YOUR backpacks? In Tara’s house?” she grumbled when Stella gave in to a whining complaint that Sage should have packed more food. It was getting dark. Kory was on the verge of tears. She had been camping plenty of times with her parents and always considered herself a nature girl. But now that she was out here with no flashlight, no tent, no fire, no food...she realized what a city girl she was. They all were.
They had, at least, stumbled onto a small path, leading to a period of relief. “Hallelujah there’s someone out here!” Stella celebrated. But they’d been on that path for most of the afternoon, and still hadn’t seen any signs of people or houses or even litter on the ground. But they kept following it, because it seemed like the only chance they had at finding help. As they walked they sang songs. Told jokes. Picked up sticks and whacked them against the lowest tree branches and tried to stay brave.
Dusk started to settle. The sky turned from bright blue to a soft periwinkle. Stars began to emerge. “Guys?” Kory said, “can we just stop for a while?” She sank to the ground just off the path and leaned against a thick tree trunk. As if admitting to their exhaustion, no one argued. They sat close together, heads dropping onto each others shoulders. Kory closed her eyes and felt herself start to drift toward sleep.
“You guys! Do you hear that!?!?” Kory was startled back into wakefulness by Melika’s voice.
Melika had been mostly quiet all day. As a general rule, Melika’s big eyes took in more than most and she was often paying attention and listening rather than talking. But even so, she would usually get silly and pull pranks, or get into a deep conversation with friends. Today though, she had barely spoken. But now her voice was sharp and clear. Kory sat up straight and listened. Sure enough, she DID hear something. She and Melika’s eyes met, and Kory nodded, slowly. “I think it’s voices” Melika went on, when she saw all the girls alert with attention. “I’ve been hearing tiny sounds all day, but I couldn’t figure it out. I thought maybe it was just squirrels or birds. But just now when we were all quiet, It was definitely someone talking.”
They all listened with every ounce of their bodies. But it was Melika, again, who said “I think it’s coming from over there” and she pointed across the path, out into the woods. Twilight was falling in full now. The sky was getting purple and blue with a few streaks of pink starting to fade. There was an almost-full moon rising, thankfully, giving them a little bit of light. But the idea of going off the path NOW seemed dangerous to say the least. “I think we should try and find them” Melika insisted. And because they couldn’t think of any better ideas, the girls agreed, rising to their feet and following Melika toward the sounds.
“Thank Goddess!” breathed Nyx, with relief. “I was just about to give up on them.”
Sylvia nodded, “Me too.”
“Don’t they know anything about the forest?” Iris asked “They are so noisy.”
“Thank goodness for that one who listens” Sylvia said. “They’re gonna make it!” and she did a little dance. Nyx rolled her eyes. Iris laughed. And they all watched.
The voices were getting louder. Now they could all hear them. Kory was tense with nerves. They saw the light of a fire flickering off of the tree branches above. Finally, as they came around a particularly ancient and wide pine, they saw figures gathered around the fire. Four figures, to be exact. And as Kory’s stomach did a flip, she realized only one of them looked human.
She wanted to run. She wanted to scream. But she felt frozen to the spot as the largest figure rose up from the fire. “Welcome children” rumbled the deep voice of a giant female bear. “You have made it to the council of the forest. In doing so, you passed the first task. Come forward and sit.”
For a moment none of them moved. The bear raised her eyebrows and settled herself back by the fire. Kory couldn’t say exactly why, but she had liked the bear’s voice. It had been kind, and held a touch of humor. She took a breath, and started moving toward the fire. Next to the bear, was a stag with a large rack of antlers. His body was on the ground with his